The ICR is not fond of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming, having argued against it in a number of past articles. Indeed there is significant overlap, at least in the United States, between those who would deny climate change and evolution – though it is not entirely clear whether or not they have a common, theological cause. This position naturally colours Brian Thomas’ latest article, Spiny Sea Creature Rapidly Accommodates Chemical Changes.
The paper he’s talking about is Natural variation and the capacity to adapt to ocean acidification in the keystone sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, in Global Change Biology – it’s not open access, but Brian helpfully links to a press release which gives most of the details. In summary increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – which is, at this point, an utterly inarguable fact – pose a less well known problem for the biosphere: it will lead to more acidic oceans. This is bad for sea creatures, most directly so for those that incorporate calcium carbonate into their exoskeletons. The sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus is one such organism, and it is considered a keystone species meaning that it has an effect on its ecosystem disproportionate to its actual abundance – urchins becoming less common would not be a good thing (though neither would having more of them).
This sea urchin, which lives on the west coast of North America from northern Mexico to southern Alaska, is exposed to varying levels of carbon dioxide naturally due to some places experiencing more cold water upwelling – which leads to higher concentrations – than others. This experiment took urchins from two sites with differing levels of upwelling, crossed them with each other presumably to produce the widest range of expressed variation, and measured their growth under very high CO2 levels. Larvae size was used as a proxy for “fitness,” i.e. how well the urchin coped with the conditions: a smaller larvae wasn’t doing as well as a larger one.
It was found that, under higher CO2 conditions, larvae were noticeably smaller than normal as expected. But there was also wide range of observed sizes, with some of the larvae actually having a normal length in spite of the conditions. They concluded that there was natural variation within the urchin population in terms of resistance to high CO2 levels, meaning that they have the capability to evolve to counter and mitigate its effects. Ocean acidification may not be quite as bad as previously thought.
The creationist response to this kind of thing is usually fairly predictable: it is a brave and foolhardy YEC who would deny the ability of populations to evolve at least a little bit, so they should have no problem. Thomas is a little different:
Some of the larvae the researchers raised in higher levels of acid “inherited a tolerance for higher CO2 levels.” Of course, they credited the creature’s ability to meet this environmental challenge through “rapid adaptation” to “evolution.”
But whether or not the larvae evolved through mutations and selection—the supposed engines of evolution—or some other internal mechanism is not yet known. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that God created urchins with an inherent potential to adjust their internal machinery to accommodate pH (acidity) changes.
Thomas provides no explanation of his “other internal mechanism,” and it’s not clear what it could possibly be. Remember, what was observed is that some of the urchins were able to grow normally in high CO2 conditions, and not that all urchins simply shrugged it off as might be expected in a more Lamarckian situation in which they all had an “inherent potential to adjust their internal machinery” for the purposes of survival.
Brian knows full well that evolution can explain this, and that it is exactly what would be expected. But still he resists, for reasons that are not clear:
Perhaps accidental mutations did confer acid tolerance to urchins. This has happened in the past, and it would be consistent with either a creation or an evolutionary way of thinking. But a well-designed self-adjusting process challenges evolutionary thinking.
He tries, poorly, to argue his case:
Preliminarily, two clues seem to signal a design rather than an accidental cause for the adjustment. First, the change occurred rapidly, as though an acid-response and adjustment system was already in place within the urchins. Second, the change precisely met the newfound need of the urchin offspring, and random changes rarely meet needs with precision.
He is chiefly mistaken in that he thinks that a change – and a “rapid” one – has happened. Instead the variation, produced by mutations, already existed but was only revealed in this experiment. The challenge was not “precisely met,” but instead some offspring inherited the right genes to endure in the conditions while others fell short to varying degrees.
Why does he take this view? I really don’t know, but it may have something to do with how the ICR really does not like natural selection. In the past they have described it as a “cruel, haphazard, inefficient, [and] wasteful process,” and
…flatly contradicted by the Biblical doctrine of love, of unselfish sacrifice, and of Christian charity. The God of the Bible is a God of order and of grace, not a God of confusion and cruelty.
The desperate search for an alternative explanation for observed adaptation might be responsible for the ICR’s idea that organisms have an “innate” ability to adapt, which I have termed “Guliuzzism.” But there is a problem: natural selection is inevitable in a case like this.
Some urchins survive and reproduce better under acidic conditions than other, and can pass this trait down to their offspring – that we have already determined. But it is an inescapable conclusion that these urchins will out-compete their brethren and become more prevalent in the population, and this phenomenon is called natural selection.
A paper cited by this one in support of the claim that “Evolution can happen on rapid (ecological) timescales, and can prevent extinction following environmental change” examined the same idea with yeast tolerance to salt. Placing yeast in high salt conditions caused a precipitous drop in population, with all but around 10% dying off. If, and only if, there existed in the population yeast that was capable of resisting the increased concentration of salt (whether because of pre-existing mutations, or mutations that had arisen during the experiment) the population could rebound and return to normal levels. If not, the yeast would go extinct. That’s a result of natural selection.
If you think that this is cruel, haphazard, inefficient, and wasteful, and that it contradicts important biblical doctrine, then that’s your own problem. You certainly don’t get to avoid it by flat-out denying the facts.